27 October 2016

A Tribute to Edward Albee (1928-2016)

[Edward Albee, one of America’s greatest modern playwrights, died 16 September 2016 at his home in Montauk, Long Island.  The winner of numerous awards and nominations, including three Pulitzer Prizes—for A Delicate Balance, 1967; Seascape, 1975;  and Three Tall Women, 1994—three Tonys—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1963; The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, 2002; and one for Lifetime Achievement, 2005—and the National Medal of Arts, 1996, Albee was 88.  The playwright was in the vanguard of Off-Broadway in the early 1960s, starting with his first produced play, The Zoo Story in 1960.  (See “Greenwich Village Theater in the 1960s,” posted on ROT on 12 and 15 December 2011.)

[Over my years of attending theater, I’ve seen a number of Albee plays—my first college directing project was his Sandbox in 1967—and I’ve seen what’s probably his most popular, well-known, and most-produced work, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, three times (not counting the movie).  One production was at Rutgers University that combined professional union actors with student performers in the summer of 1977 (when I was performing in another play in the summer rep), but the other two were Broadway productions.  The first was in June 1976 at the Music Box Theatre in a staging by the playwright himself, starring Colleen Dewhurst as Martha and Ben Gazzara as George.  I wasn’t writing reports of my theater experiences then, but I recall observing to myself after seeing this performance what a great play it is—not what a great production it was.  Albee directed the words, not the actors or the characters. 

[The third production of Virginia Woolf I saw was the national tour of the 2005 Broadway revival directed by Anthony Page with Katheen Turner as Martha and Bill Irwin as George.  I saw the show in Washington, D.C., at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in January 2007.  As a belated tribute to Edward Albee, here’s my report, written on 17 January 2007.]


I left New York City for Washington on 22 December 2006, the Friday before my birthday, because I’ve been taking the “Kosher Bus” these days now that I don’t have a doggie to transport.  Vamoose, the bus company’s real name, now has Saturday service (through someone else they’ve contracted to operate on the Sabbath), but Friday is still the day they have the most runs scheduled, so it’s the most convenient if I don’t want to leave either early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  (The company’s run into some sort of problem with its regular stops in D.C.: they can’t stop at either the downtown or Tenleytown locations temporarily, so they’re now going to Bethesda and Arlington.  [This change turned out not to be temporary at all. ~Rick]  Though the Bethesda stop isn’t terribly out of the way, but it’s not as convenient as the Tenleytown location which is only a short, straight run from my mother’s apartment.  Too bad.)  In any case, I waited until as late as I could before the holidays because, first, I was planning to stay down south at least several days past the New Year (it turned out to be nearly a week later) and, second, I had a paper I wanted to submit for publication by a 5 January deadline and that meant I had to finish it before I left town and my computer.  [I had a desktop machine at that time and no laptop yet.]  (I had already abandoned another paper because I couldn’t manage two with nearly identical deadlines before I left town.)

The reason that I knew I’d be staying past New Years is that my mother and I had gotten tickets for the 4 January 2007 opening of the national tour of the 2005 Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which was making its first stop at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.  As I had missed the performances here, I was looking forward to seeing Bill Irwin (who won the Tony) and Kathleen Turner (who was nominated—as was the production—but lost out to Cherry Jones in Doubt). 

My mother had arranged dinner on the 25th at one of the Washington area’s nicer restaurants, the Old Angler’s Inn (I’ve never known if it’s the inn or the angler which is old), in commemoration of the 21st anniversary of my 39th birthday (you do the math), and my cousin and her husband joined us.  Another cousin who lives in Baltimore had been invited, too, but she was unable to make it, so a few days later, Mom and I drove over to Charm City (I don’t know, either) to see an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art, A View Toward Paris: The Lucas Collection of 19th-Century French Art, and got my cousin to meet us there.  The show had gotten an interesting review in the Washington Post and was going to close on the last day of the year, so we went over on Thursday, 28 December, on what turned out to be a beautiful afternoon. It wasn’t a great art exhibit, but it was more than pleasant, and had its virtues.  Besides, we had lunch in the museum restaurant and, since we were in Baltimore, I got to have crab cakes from an authentic Maryland kitchen!  Unless you’ve had crab cakes from within shouting distance of the Chesapeake, you haven’t lived!!  (If you’ve had them anywhere else, conversely, you have no idea what you’re missing.)

So on Thursday evening, 4 January, we went to the Kennedy Center for the performance of the national tour of Broadway’s Virginia Woolf.  We went to opening night (not usually my preference) because when Mother saw the announcement and called for tickets, the short run—it closes on 28 January—was almost already sold out and the opening-night seats were the best we could get.  Turner and Irwin are reprising their performances as the battling couple, and the actor playing Nick, David Furr, was the standby on Broadway and took over the role in the last month there.  I saw the 1976 Broadway revival of Virginia Woolf directed by Albee (with Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara), but except for a semi-pro production at Rutgers University the next year, I haven’t seen it since then—not even the movie. 

I can only assume that Irwin and Turner are recreating the performances they gave on Broadway, and I can see why it was so well received a year-and-a-half ago.  Turner is the queen bitch of all time—not a Joan Crawford-Bette Davis harridan, but a perfectly believable, if over-the-top, damaged and damaging woman.  Her husky voice—not unlike what I recall Dewhurst had, coincidentally—lends itself to the image of a hard-drinking, hard-smoking middle-aged woman—and I don’t know if Turner has gained weight for this role or is just suffering the common problem of many of us as we passed 35, the dreaded spread, but she looks like the earth-mother Martha claims to be.  But Irwin, taking a completely different tack from any I have ever seen or heard of (or could imagine) is astonishing. 

Of course, I know Irwin from his clown and mime work at the beginning of his career (truly remarkable work in its own right!) and I’ve seen him as he’s moved into straight dramatic work as well (though I missed him in Albee’s The Goat), but this, even though I had read the reviews in 2005, stunned me.  I knew this was a stretch for him, not just because the role and the play are such a challenge, but because he was doing George differently from previous interpretations (in the shadow, of course, of the iconic film performance of Richard Burton).  He’s diffident, small (as he is, of course, next to Turner anyway), stiff, even awkward.  He doesn’t try to match Martha’s vitriol and venom (until the end, when he explodes like a bottle of soda under pressure), he withdraws and retreats—though we eventually see that he’s been drawing Martha into a trap. 

Intellectually, this shouldn’t work.  Turner’s Martha should overwhelm Irwin’s George, smother him, make him a secondary player.  But either Irwin’s smarter than I think I am, or he just does it better than anyone should be able to—because he’s still Turner’s equal on stage.  And when that last scene comes, the one where he springs the trap and devastates Martha, revealing it all to Nick, Honey, and us (and remember, I knew what was coming), it’s a shock and shatters us all. 

It was stunning.  Literally.  I can only say that Irwin still performs magic, even when he’s not!  It remains to be seen if he can go on to more stage triumphs (and he has also been doing some directing, principally of Beckett plays), or if this blows his wad.  Even if it did, though, he earned all the accolades he got—though I’m betting he’s got more of this tucked away, given the chance to display it.  We’ll see, I guess. 

[This Broadway revival opened at the Longacre Theatre on 20 March 2005 and closed 5 September after 8 previews (starting on 12 March) and 177 performances.  It received three 2005 Drama Desk nominations (Outstanding Revival of a Play, Outstanding Actor in a Play –Irwin, Outstanding Actress in a Play – Turner) and six 2005 Tony nominations (Best Revival of a Play, Best Actress in a Play – Turner, Best Featured Actor in a Play – David Harbour as Nick, Best Featured Actress in a Play – Mireille Enos as Honey, Best Costume Design of a Play – Jane Greenwood; Irwin won the Tony for Best Actor in a Play).  The tour, from 7 January  to 20 May 2007, of which the Kennedy Center mounting was the first stop, went on to other cities: Los Angeles,  6 February-18 March; Chicago, 27 March -8 April; San Francisco, 11 April -12 May; Tucson, 15-20 May.

[I didn’t survey reviews in 2007 as I do now, so here are some of the pertinent comments from a few prominent publications.  In the Daily News of 21 March 2005, Howard Kissel, calling the New York production “a thrilling evening of theater,” wrote in “This Virginia is for drama lovers,” “The production, directed by Anthony Page, mines the riches of the play beautifully” and that together Irwin and Turner “convey all the savage eloquence of Albee's dialogue.  Every line is riveting.”  Clive Barnes described the performances as “[t]wo dying scorpions trapped at the bottom of an empty gin bottle”  in “a scorching, exhilarating revival” in “‘Woolf’ Has Bite” in the New York Post  of 21 March and in “Marriage as Blood Sport: A No-Win Game,” Ben Brantley of the New York Times on the same date labeled the production “pulse-racing” and reported, “Mr. Page and his stars insist on grounding each linguistic reversal and rodomontade in in-the-moment reactions.”

[Of the Kennedy Center presentation, the Washington Post’s Peter Marks declared in “‘Virginia Woolf’: The Marriage From Hell With A Heavenly Cast” on 12 January 2007, “A rapturous daze is the condition you find yourself in “ after seeing this Virginia Woolf, which gets “superb treatment” from the company, staged “to stunning effect” by Page.  In his review, “With Turner and Irwin, ‘Woolf’ has sharp claws,” in the Baltimore Sun of 14 January 2007, J. Wynn Rousuck , reporting that Virginia Woolf “has lost none of its sting” in the Washington performance, wrote that Albee’s “taut, tart, subversive play crackles with tension yet celebrates human spirit.”  The Washington staging garnered two 2008 Helen Hayes Award nominations, one for Outstanding Non-Resident Production and one for Bill Irwin for Outstanding Lead Actor, Non-Resident Production; Virginia Woolf won the second.

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